[Note: While some of this is purely theoretical, I base my knowledge on Shyamalan’s need to be treated like a genius from the book The Man Who Heard Voices, by Michael Bamberger, which chronicles the entire process of making Lady in the Water]
For those of you too young to remember, The Sixth Sense was nominated for six academy awards. Two for acting, one for picture, one for editing, and two for Shyamalan in the writing and directing categories. The Sixth Sense was Shyamalan’s second wide-distribution directorial effort. He wasn’t even thirty years old.
The Sixth Sense was also one of the highest grossing films of 1998. It was universally acclaimed, hugely successful in the box office, and became an instant pop culture sensation with both its twist ending and its “I see dead people” one-liner.
Shyamalan had been dubbed “The Next Spielberg” by Newsweek.
When I was eight years old, my mom and I went to Blockbuster, as we did most Friday nights, and looked for a good tape to watch over the weekend. We settled on what looked like a Rosie O’Donnell comedy about Catholic school called Wide Awake, which, from the box art, looked to be a pretty light coming-of-age comedy.
What we got instead was a heavy, nuanced movie about a young person’s spiritual journey as he mourns the death of his best friend. It’s full of dark moments, difficult questions, and moral ambiguity.
Also, Rosie O’Donnell plays a nun.
The movie ends up going a little too far toward sentiment for my taste, but at the time, I was completely shocked by what I had seen. I had never seen anybody in a movie question the existence of God. Or the fear of death. I’d never seen a movie where anybody, let alone a child, had a seizure that caused serious injury.
I’d never seen a movie without a real bad guy, but an abstract and scary idea–my best friend died. I’m going to die.
Wide Awake was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan in 1996, released in 1997, and quickly became one of the lowest grossing movies of the year.
Admittedly, the movie doesn’t hold up very well now that I’m older, but it’s also a movie made totally and completely for children. And, as a child, I was moved by the experience of watching it.
When I was twelve, I watched The Sixth Sense for the sixteenth time, following it up with a documentary about its production. I had recently bought the Buena Vista Special Edition DVD (which is a really impressive release) and was very excited about understanding how my favorite movie got made.
When the featurette began, Shyamalan talked about directing child actors. At the time, I wanted to be Shyamalan, so I listened closely. He said that he learned to work with children on a film he made that nobody saw called Wide Awake.
I shook my head in bewilderment.
He made Wide Awake? That sentimental movie I used to watch with my mom?
I couldn’t believe it. At twelve years old, I was already a movie snob. I had the Buena Vista Special Edition DVD for goodness sake. I wanted to be a filmmaker, not a director. I wanted to be Robert Zemeckis, not Steven Spielberg (which is a distinction I understand even less now than I did then).
How could Shyamalan, who’d made such a mature, well-crafted, well-acted, and beautifully written film as The Sixth Sense have made such a sentimental mess just a year before?
I figured it was a studio thing. It was always a studio thing.
That same year, I saw Unbreakable. It was the story of a man who realizes, through a terrible accident, that he might have supernatural powers.
It replaced The Sixth Sense as my favorite movie, and it stayed that way for a long time. Unbreakable is, to this day, one of the best movies of the last twenty years. The writing is so good, so perfectly structured, so confident, that I can’t help but admire it.
From the opening moments of a doctor realizing a baby boy has been born with terrible injuries to the finale, where a superhero kills a supervillain without ever saying a word, it is a true masterpiece.
And the direction is even better. How did Shyamalan film that opening sequence? As a long, single take making excellent use of a mirror.
How did he shoot the final batte? A long, wide shot that sensationalizes none of the action.
How did he direct the actors for his superhero follow-up to one of the most acclaimed films of the previous decade? Minimalistic performances with a deep sense of regret.
The movie didn’t change the landscape like The Sixth Sense did, but believe me when I tell you that the film community got really excited by Unbreakable.
It was challenging, thought-provoking, deliberately-paced, well-acted, well-shot, and, most of all, not The Sixth Sense. Of course, Shyamalan did use a surprise twist (early signs of his downfall), but he also understood that he had to change things up.
It’s the best film he’s ever made. I hope it doesn’t stay that way.
When I was thirteen, Signs was released. I had never anticipated a movie as much as I did Signs. It was the new film from my favorite director, whose earlier work had instantly changed my feelings on art and filmmaking, and it was starring Mel Gibson, an actor I quite liked, and it was about aliens, a subject I also quite liked.
Signs didn’t become my new favorite movie, but I also really, really liked it. I liked the way it handled its child actors (a gift I’ve always thought Shyamalan had), I appreciated the amount of humor the film brought to the table, and I adored its message. That there are no coincidences in life.
The scene where Morgan becomes conscious, surviving the poison from the alien threat, is one of the few film scenes that makes me cry every time I watch it. It works because we love this family. It works because they’re dysfunctional and raw and frustrated and scared, and we want everything to be all right for them.
It’s an alien movie without all that many aliens. It’s like The Birds or Night of the Living Dead. It’s an alien movie for grownups, where the main threat isn’t the aliens, but the other people in the town. It’s also, like every Shyamalan film, about a man trying to understand the world on a spiritual level.
Signs marks the end of Shyamalan’s amazing run of quality, successful mainstream movies marketed toward mature, thoughtful moviegoers. He was not the next Spielberg, as Newsweek had claimed, but the next Hitchcock.
The problem is that Shyamalan called himself the next Hitchcock. He believed his own hype.
The Village, his first critical failure, was a modest commercial hit. And even the phrase “critical failure” can be used modestly, here. It holds a 43% on rottentomatoes.
I remember something strange happening in the weeks leading up to the release of Shyamalan’s anticipated period piece about a town isolated from the world because of the monters hiding in the woods.
Syfy Channel aired a documentary called The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan. It was a fake documentary about Shyamalan, painting a portrait of him as some sort of supernatural entity who just understood things better than the rest of us.
It wasn’t weird because it was a documentary about the director. It was weird because it wasn’t about directing.
In 1955, Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired its pilot episode. In opening moments, Hitchcock, the legendary filmmaker behind some of the biggest movies ever made at that time, filled the screen. He was giving a macabre speech about evil and death and shadows. He spoke coyly about things that go bump in the night.
He was a birthday clown.
After the show aired, Hitchcock began to appear on late night television. He did hundreds of television interviews, and he rarely spoke about his work as a filmmaker.
Like Truman Capote, Hitchcock was no longer a famous artist. He was a famous personality.
It took Psycho for Hitchcock to get his credibility again, and even that was short lived.
It took dying for Hitchcock to be heralded as the genius he was.
Shyamalan must know this. He has to know the famous story of Hitchcock’s fall from grace. He’s trying too hard to be Hitchcock to not know that.
So isn’t it strange that, after three hugely successful, critical darlings, Shyamalan decided to cultivate a false public persona?
I saw The Village the day it came out, and everybody that went to see it with me was trying to guess the surprise ending.
It was pretty easy to guess. So easy, in fact, that I often argue that it isn’t a surprise.
The Village, for me, is the last great Shyamalan film before his career became amusing to Internet bullies. It’s got an amazing soundtrack, a fantastic cast, and an atmosphere that only a master craftsman can create.
Shyamalan is a visual director through and through, and he has shown signs of being one of our great visualists. Many people don’t believe that anymore. In fact, most people claim they never liked him to begin with.
After The Village, Shyamalan made Lady in the Water. I saw that movie two times in the theater, both times immensely enjoying Shyamalan’s playfulness with his audience’s expectations. I also saw it twice because, after my first viewing, I didn’t really connect with it.
The story was unclear. The mythology was complicated and strange. The acting worked for me, but the characters didn’t.
And Shyamalan wrote a part for himself in the movie. He does this all the time, but this part was different. This part was messianic. He wrote himself a part where he got to play the messiah.
He cultivated a personality over the course of seven years, and then he released a movie in which he plays the savior of the human race. A man who is reluctantly and silently changing the world with his brilliant writing.
The backlash gained speed. A man who had previously been heralded as the savior of Hollywood, ironically enough, lost that status when he called himself a savior.
He now fully and completely believed in his own hype. He was no longer a director trying to tell good stories about interesting people. He was a director who was trying to change the world.
He was no longer surrounded by a crew of able collaborators who challenged and provoked him. He was surrounded by people who agreed with him.
Good collaboration is knowing when the other person is right. When the other person is only standing there to agree with you, then you’re not collaborating. You’re dictating.
It’s possible to hypothesize what happened in the years following the mega-success of The Sixth Sense. People called Shyamalan brilliant. It happened so frequently that Shyamalan began to believe it. The studio, who profited hugely from his work, no doubt massaged him into total relaxation. They called him perfect.
And then, one day, he realized something. He was perfect. How could he not be? Nobody challenges his ideas. All of his work gets produced. The numbers are getting a little low, but nobody is approaching him about it. The marketing guys must have screwed up.
Shyamalan became his own worst enemy by believing in his own greatness.
Some filmmakers can continue producing great work despite their egos–case in point, Quentin Tarantino. But what makes Tarantino different is that he is a good collaborator. He works with people, like Robert Richardson and the late Sally Menke, who are able to openly criticize and challenge his choices.
Shyamalan, to quote Wayne Gretzky by way of Kevin Smith, started to go where the puck was, and not where it was going.
Not because he wanted to make good movies, but because he wanted to win.
James Cameron has a similar method, but he also attempts to change the puck’s trajectory altogether with his archetypal hero’s journeys.
Shyamalan similarly jumps genres, but he’s not a genre storyteller. He’s a character guy. He’s a slow-burn, drama guy.
Somebody told him to stop going where the puck was going to be, and they told him his real strengths lie in redefining where the puck is. He believed them.
He made The Last Airbender. He made The Happening. He made After Earth.
Apart from The Happening, Shyamalan has most recently directed projects he didn’t initially create. They are big budget, 3D action-adventure films that share almost nothing in common with the films that made him great.
Unbreakable isn’t a superhero movie. It’s a movie about a man who doesn’t know how to be a father.
After Earth, which thinks it’s a movie about a man wanting to be a father, is actually an action film.
The difference may seem slight, but it’s actually huge.
The Happening is about nature fighting back against humanity. It’s not about a man reconciling with his wife, even though it thinks it is.
You may have trouble pinpointing how he has changed, but you know that Shyamalan has changed. The characters don’t feel fresh anymore. The plots aren’t as interesting.
It’s because he’s no longer anticipating the puck. Somebody told him he’d already caught it.
The Happening feels like the “lesser” Hitchcock films of the early seventies, before his death. It feels like Family Plot. Especially when it’s compared to Shyamalan’s Strangers on a Train, Unbreakable, which is a small masterpiece made at a point in his career where a small masterpiece was the difference between having a career and not having one.
The life is gone from his films because, at some point, he came to believe that he had won filmmaking. He became a personality. A marquee name. He was hailed as the boy genius of blockbuster art films. He no longer had to try in the same ways that he did. He didn’t have anything prove.
The story of M. Night Shyamalan isn’t that different from Hitchcock’s story. It’s actually hauntingly similar. The difference is that we are living in the Internet age. The difference is that Shyamalan never got the kind of contracts that Hitchcock got. He worked on over thirty movies before he started cranking out masterpieces in the fifties. He understood collaboration.
Shyamalan was just a kid when The Sixth Sense blew up. He couldn’t handle that kind of pressure as an artist. He also didn’t have the integrity to know himself as a writer. He believed in the hype because he needed to. He was too young, too inexperienced to know any better.
I believe that Wide Awake was the result of a twenty-five year old Shyamalan trying desperately to do two things at once: go where the puck is and go where the puck is headed. That’s why it feels like it’s trying to be both a light family comedy and a heavy, dark drama. He wanted be an artist, but he also wanted to get a movie made.
The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are the works of a man who tried to please both sides and failed. He decided to just follow his instincts and make movies he believed in.
But when somebody told him he’d caught the puck, he did the worst thing any artist can do. He listened.
The change in quality between Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense is almost impossible to understand. The same can be said between Unbreakable and The Last Airbender. His career moved in reverse after it peaked.
My hope is that, before long, one of his collaborators will sit down with him and say something that every artist needs to hear. “No.”
[Note: Kevin Smith’s many discussions about the puck, where it is, where it’s going, and everything is, can be found in his book Tough Sh*T, which is essential reading for any writer or filmmaker, whether you love the man or not.]